Ninth-inning home runs by Pedro Alvarez and Starling Marte rallied the struggling Pittsburgh Pirates to a 6-5 win over the Toronto Blue Jays, overcoming a night of missed connections and providing the first ripple of Pittsburgh’s surge toward a repeat postseason appearance.
Rising up from two dismal decades,1 the 2013 Pirates notched the franchise’s first winning season2 and postseason berth3 since 1992 and defeated Cincinnati in the National League Wild Card Game before a raucous PNC Park crowd.4 The eventual league champion St. Louis Cardinals ended the party in a hard-fought divisional series,5 but as 2014 began, Pittsburgh’s mood about the Pirates was its most sanguine in a generation.6
Fifteen losses in 19 games, starting with Milwaukee’s three-game sweep on April 11-13,7 darkened the springtime bliss. Closer Jason Grilli squandered ninth-inning leads in consecutive games8 and landed on the disabled list,9 along with starting pitcher Wandy Rodriguez10 and catcher Russell Martin.11 Alvarez, whose 36 home runs led the National League in 2013, went homerless and batted .176 during the 19-game slide. Marte finished April with a .229 batting average and .308 on-base percentage and lost his job as leadoff hitter.12
The confluence of injuries and poor play culminated in a soggy trip to Baltimore. Spring showers washed a scheduled two-game series into a May 1 makeup doubleheader, which the Orioles swept from the waterlogged Pirates.13 The double defeat included blown leads in both games, 28 stranded runners, and Matt Wieters’ coup de grace walk-off home run in the nightcap.14 When their return flight touched down at Pittsburgh International Airport at 3:33 A.M. on May 2, the Pirates’ predicament was stark: a 10-18 record, the National League Central cellar, and a 9½-game divisional deficit. A weekend visit from the Blue Jays was next.
With Pittsburgh in need of a stopper, Gerrit Cole took the ball on a chilly Friday evening. Cole, drafted first overall in June 2011, seemed well-suited for the role, having allowed just two runs over 15 innings in his last two starts.15 As a rookie in 2013, he had posted a 10-7 record and 3.22 earned-run average after a June promotion from Triple A and started two postseason games.
Cole retired the first two Blue Jays he faced, bringing up Jose Bautista for his first Pittsburgh plate appearance since the Pirates traded him to Toronto in August 2008.16 With the Blue Jays, Bautista had blossomed under hitting coach Dwayne Murphy’s mentorship;17 his 97 home runs over 2010 and 2011 led all major leaguers.18 Injuries slowed Bautista’s onslaught over the next two seasons,19 but the 33-year-old right fielder remained one of the game’s most feared hitters.
Drawing his hands close to his body to meet the pitch squarely, Bautista blistered Cole’s down-and-in fastball inside third for a double.20 Edwin Encarnacion then hooked a fly ball into left center for another double, driving in Bautista for a 1-0 lead.
The Pirates had a chance to match Toronto’s run in the bottom of the first when Andrew McCutchen hustled for a two-out double off Brandon Morrow. They instead initiated a string of missed scoring opportunities: Alvarez hit a grounder into short right field, but second baseman Brett Lawrie, shaded toward first, grabbed the ball and threw him out to end the inning.21
Serially killing potential rallies, the Pirates grounded into double plays in each of the next three innings. Three singles loaded the bases with none out in the second, but Jordy Mercer, batting .159 at this point, tapped a groundball to shortstop Jose Reyes, who conceded the tying run for a double play. After McCutchen’s single drove in Neil Walker for a 2-1 Pittsburgh lead in the third, Gaby Sanchez followed Alvarez’s subsequent single by hitting into an around-the-horn double play. Marte and Tony Sanchez started the fourth with singles, but Mercer grounded to Lawrie, who started the Blue Jays’ third double play in three innings.
Meanwhile, Cole appeared to find his pace over two scoreless innings, with the only pulse-quickening moment a vicious Bautista comebacker that tore his glove off his hand in the third.22 The 23-year-old right-hander took the 2-1 lead into the fourth, but Juan Francisco led off with a double to the gap in left center. One out later, Colby Rasmus connected on an opposite-field home run, clearing the 383-foot sign in left, for a 3-2 Toronto edge. The Blue Jays’ lead doubled in the fifth when Bautista, hitting Cole solidly for the third time in three at-bats, lined a double to right to score Reyes.23
The Pirates answered in their half of fifth. Walker’s leadoff double lodged on top of the wall in right center, under the protective fence and yellow home-run line, inches from a homer. McCutchen’s RBI single cut the Blue Jays’ lead to 4-3. But Pittsburgh again failed to convert an opportunity into runs: After McCutchen stole second, Morrow retired three Pirates in a row to strand him there.
Pirates manager Clint Hurdle replaced Cole with Justin Wilson in the sixth.24 Lawrie greeted the left-hander by chopping the ball over third baseman Alvarez’s head and racing to second for a double. Wilson set down Rasmus and Josh Thole, but Steven Tolleson, batting for Morrow, lofted a fly ball into right-center for a triple, driving in Lawrie and restoring Toronto’s two-run lead.
Steve Delabar relieved Morrow in the sixth.25 With two outs, Travis Snider batted for Wilson and singled. Jose Tabata then lined a double into the right-field corner. Bautista quickly retrieved the ball and hit the cutoff man to hold Snider on third. Delabar’s 2-and-2 pitch to Walker struck the Pittsburgh second baseman on the back foot, loading the bases. McCutchen hit a slow bouncer toward short, but Reyes charged, scooped it, and threw him out by a step. Once again, a Pirates’ threat was denied.
Pirates relief pitcher Casey Sadler made his major-league debut in the seventh.26 After retiring Melky Cabrera to start the appearance, the 23-year-old Sadler induced Bautista to ground to shortstop on a 3-and-1 pitch – the first time in the game that the Toronto slugger did not hit the ball squarely.27 Stranding Lawrie on third in the eighth with a strikeout of Chris Getz, Sadler kept the Pirates within striking distance with two scoreless innings.28
Toronto manager John Gibbons summoned Brett Cecil in the seventh and the left-hander contributed two clean innings to maintain the Blue Jays’ 5-3 lead. As the scoreboard flashed to the bottom of the ninth, it reflected Pittsburgh’s evening of missed opportunities. The Pirates had deployed their emergent staff ace and racked up 14 hits in eight innings, but had nothing to show for it but a two-run deficit, three outs from another defeat.
Blue Jays closer Sergio Santos entered for the save. The 30-year-old right-hander started 2014 with saves in his first four opportunities but had failed to preserve late-inning leads in two of his last three save situations. Walker lined Santos’s first pitch into right-center for a single. McCutchen struck out for the first out.
Alvarez, his homerless streak now at 82 plate appearances, took the first pitch for a ball. Santos’s next delivery arrived over the center of the plate at 95 miles per hour. Alvarez drove it into the night, reaching the first row of seats in right-center for a game-tying home run.
Ike Davis, pinch-hitting for Gaby Sanchez, flied to center. With extra innings one out away, Marte batted, seeking his fourth hit of the game. Santos missed the strike zone with a breaking ball, then threw a fastball that Marte fouled off. Another breaking ball bounced in the dirt.
Santos’s fourth pitch targeted the outside corner but drifted toward the middle of the plate. Marte crushed it far over the center-field fence and into the Pirates bullpen. As fireworks splashed the night sky, the 25-year-old left fielder threw his helmet into the air and crossed home plate into a scrum of thrilled teammates. After a night of squandered opportunities, ninth-inning power produced a 6-5 Pirates win.29
“That’s all we kept talking about,” Hurdle said afterward. “Stay relentless in your pursuit. Keep getting out there. Keep scratching, keep clawing, keep playing. (Marte) has had really good, clean, aggressive at-bats the last three games he’s played down there. None bigger than that one. It’s been a while since Pedro was able to ride one out of the ballpark. Those kinds of things can create more momentum and more traction.”30
The comeback provided needed traction for the sliding Pirates. A night later, they rallied from a five-run deficit for another win.31 Their 16-8 surge, starting in mid-May, reset them at .500 on June 14.32 Pittsburgh kept within range of contention throughout the year, before a September push of 17 wins in 21 games clinched their second consecutive wild-card berth.33
On this weekend, I was in Pittsburgh, my hometown, to run the Pittsburgh Marathon, which was two days after this game. My dad and I watched the action from the infield boxes on the first-base side.
In addition to the Sources cited in the Notes, I consulted the Baseball-Reference.com and Retrosheet.org websites for pertinent material and the box scores noted below. Sources consulted also included a recording of Root Sports Pittsburgh’s cable broadcast, available at the YouTube link below.
1 Charlie Wilmoth, Dry Land: Winning after 20 Years at Sea with the Pittsburgh Pirates (Scotts Valley, California: Create Space Independent Publishing Platform, 2014), 150-173.
2 Michael Sanserino, “Worth the Wait: The Pirates’ Nightmare Is Over with First Winning Season Since ’92 as Alvarez, Cole Seize the Night,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, September 10. 2013: D-1.
3 Bill Brink, “They’re In: Marte’s HR Helps Clinch Playoff Berth,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, September 24, 2013: D-1.
4 Bill Brink, “Rolling on the River: Next Stop: St. Louis, Where Cardinals Await Game 1 of NLDS on Thursday,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, October 2, 2013: D-1.
5 Bill Brink, “The End Game: Freese, Wainwright Team Up to Bring Joy Ride of a Season to an End for Pirates,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, October 10, 2013: D-1.
6 “We needn’t expect miracles; the Pirates no longer need one,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette columnist Gene Collier wrote on Opening Day. “What we should expect, however, as we’ve been given license to expect, are naturally positive outcomes, more often than not, from seriously talented people doing things correctly within baseball’s quotidian rhythms, more often than not.” Gene Collier, “It’s a New Ballgame,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, March 31, 2014, A-1.
7 Jenn Menendez, “Lohse Stellar to Cap Sweep: Sanchez Botches Throw; Bats Fizzle,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, April 15, 2014: D-1.
8 Bill Brink, “Brawl Mars Another Loss: Division Rivals Get Last Laugh Again, This Time in 14 Innings After Bases-Clearing Scrum,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, April 21, 2014: D-1.
9 Bill Brink, “Grilli Goes on DL, But with Roster Wrinkle,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, April 26, 2014: C-5.
10 Jenn Menendez, “Left-Hander Rodriguez Put on 15-Day Disabled List,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, April 22, 2014: D-2.
11 Bill Brink, “Grilli Officially on 15-Day DL, And Martin (Hamstring), Too,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, April 27, 2014: C-5.
12 Jenn Menendez, “Sadler Aims to Impress, Help Bullpen: Class AAA Call-Up Adds Reliever Depth,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, April 30, 2014: D-5.
13 Jenn Menendez, “Rain, Lack of Timely Hits Produce Sweep,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, May 2, 2014.
15 Nevertheless, the Pirates lost both games. On April 20, Grilli followed Cole’s eight innings of one-run pitching by allowing a game-tying Ryan Braun home run in the ninth; the Brewers won 3-2 in 14 innings. Brink, “Brawl Mars Another Loss.” Five days later, Cole allowed one run over seven innings, but five Cardinals pitchers blanked the Pirates in St. Louis’s 1-0 win. Bill Brink, “It’s Miller’s Turn to Shine: St. Louis Starter Battles Through Early Trouble to Earn First Win Against Pirates,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, April 26, 2014: C-1.
16 The Pirates had drafted Bautista in June 2000, lost him in the Rule 5 draft in December 2003, and reacquired him in a July 2004 trade. He was their regular third baseman from the beginning of the 2007 season until the July 2008 trade that sent Jason Bay to Boston and brought third-base prospect Andy LaRoche, among others, to Pittsburgh. Within three weeks after that trade, the Pirates designated Bautista a utility player, demoted him to Triple A, and traded him to Toronto for catcher Robinzon Diaz. Dejan Kovacevic, “Gorzelanny Returns; Bautista Shipped to Toronto,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, August 22, 2008: D-5.
17 Bruce Arthur, “Faith No More: The Great Tragedy of the Steroid Era Is That Wonderful Feats Now Stir Up Suspicion,” National Post, September 11, 2010: S1.
18 Noah Trister (Associated Press), “Jays Hope Bautista’s Bat Stays Hot,” The Gazette (Montreal), March 7, 2012: B14.
19 In 2012, a wrist injury limited Bautista to five plate appearances after July 16. John Lott, “Wrist Injury Puts an End to Bautista’s Season,” National Post, August 29, 2012: S2. A bone bruise on his left hip ended his 2013 season on August 20. “Bautista Shelved, Jays Blow Sweep,” National Post, September 5, 2013: B8.
20 Bautista drew mixed boos and cheers from the PNC Park crowd of 24,547, which included many Blue Jays fans. “It’ll be great either way,” Bautista said. “If there’s boos, they’ll mean that they would’ve liked to have me still and if they cheer for me, they enjoyed my time when I was here, so I don’t see how it can go wrong.” John Lott, “Law of Averages Catch Up to Jays, Santos in Ninth,” National Post, May 3, 2014: FP16.
21 Ordinarily Toronto’s third baseman, Lawrie played second against the Pirates, allowing manager John Gibbons to use Juan Francisco, then on a hot streak as the Blue Jays’ designated hitter, at third. John Lott, “Jays Lawrie Not Thrilled About Shift to Second,” National Post, May 3, 2014: FP16.
22 Cole recovered to pick up the ball and retire Bautista on an underhanded flip to first.
23 Travis Sawchik of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review noted that Cole threw just 11 of 20 curveballs for strikes, allowing Toronto to focus on his fastball. Sawchik, “Alvarez, Marte Homer in Ninth as Pirates Rally Past Blue Jays,” Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, May 3, 2014.
24 Cole had thrown 95 pitches in five innings.
25 Morrow had thrown 102 pitches in five innings. After the game, the Blue Jays placed Morrow on the 60-day disabled list; he tore a tendon sheath on his right index finger while pitching against the Pirates. John Lott, “Jays’ Pen Blows Another Lead: Dickey’s Solid Start Goes to Waste as Toronto Loses 8-6 in Pittsburgh,” The Province (Vancouver), May 4, 2014: A40. The injury sidelined Morrow until September 5.
26 The Pirates recalled Sadler, their 25th-round draft pick from Western Oklahoma State College in 2010, from Triple-A Indianapolis on April 27, but he did not pitch in a game until this one. Bill Brink, “Nagging Issue Not New for Martin,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, April 28, 2014: D-5.
27 Bautista remained healthy throughout 2014. He hit 35 home runs and earned his third career Silver Slugger Award.
28 “For them to trust me enough to put me in that situation when you’re [facing] the meat of the order, it meant a lot,” Sadler said. Bill Brink, “Alvarez, Marte Power Rally: Ninth-Inning HRs Bring Abrupt End to 3-Game Slump,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, May 3, 2014: D-5.
29 After the game, Blue Jays manager John Gibbons announced that a committee of relievers would replace Santos to close games for Toronto. Lott, “Jays’ Pen Blows Another Lead.” The Blue Jays designated Santos for assignment and demoted him to the minor leagues in July, brought him back for two August appearances, and then designated him for assignment again on August 27, ending his tenure in Toronto. John Lott, “Blue Jays’ Stroman Stops the Sweep,” National Post, August 28, 2014: B3.
30 Sawchik, “Alvarez, Marte Homer in Ninth as Pirates Rally Past Blue Jays.”
31 Bill Brink, “Walker’s Double Nets Win: Bats Come Alive Late for 2nd Rally in Row,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, May 3, 2014: C-1.
32 Bill Brink, “Parade of Hits Rolls On: McCutchen Leads Hot Offense Again,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, June 15, 2014: C-3.
33 Bill Brink, “Playoff Bound … Again: Cole’s Pitching Leads Way to Nothing Less Than Wild-Card Spot,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, September 24, 2014: E-5.